ST. GEORGE — Motorists on both sides of Interstate 15 north of Hurricane were caught in a firestorm Sunday afternoon, one that triggered a series of events that included cars being diverted through the median, evacuations, panicked motorists and a blaze of air support executing a blitz attack on the fast-moving inferno as it spread across the highway.
The Cottonwood Trail Fire has burned through more than 3,000 acres and is 10% contained, and with winds slowing down Monday, the spread of the fire has slowed significantly.
According to an update released by Utah Fire Info Monday morning, all evacuations ordered in the Harrisburg, Leeds and Angel Heights areas have been lifted, but only local traffic is allowed in the Angel Heights area.
A multi-agency team that included state and local departments took command of the blaze Monday morning, according to the most recent update from Mike Melton, fire management officer for Utah’s Division of Forestry, Fire & State Lands in Southern Utah.
The American Red Cross of Utah set up an evacuation center at the Grafton building at the Washington County Fairgrounds Sunday. In all, the organization assisted 10 families with lodging for the night, including 22 people, 10 dogs and a cat. The Red Cross will continue working with fire officials to determine what other services may be needed, the relief agency reported.
The fire started shortly after 3:15 p.m. Sunday, when a blown tire ignited dry grass off the southbound shoulder of I-15 near mile marker 17. The blaze spread rapidly heading to the west and then spread north as it continued inching closer to the roadway until the flames met the asphalt.
In some cases, the flames were just feet from vehicles heading south, as traffic slowed to a halt intermittently. According to comments and information sent to St. George News by a number of readers, some motorists began panicking when traffic slowed to a stop as the swift-moving flames were burning next to the freeway. Several wooden posts that secure the guardrail were burning when St. George News arrived on scene.
Heavy air support was called in soon after the fire started, as air tankers, helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft began executing retardant and water drops in a direct attack to halt the blaze as it burned along the interstate.
The fire continued spreading north along the southbound shoulder of I-15 until it reached an area near mile marker 20 shortly after 4 p.m., where it spread across I-15 to the northbound side. All traffic stopped as firefighters continued fighting the flames heading east across the freeway.
The northbound side of I-15 was closed at Exit 16, while traffic was diverted onto state Route 9. As the backlog of vehicles continued to grow, ground crews and an aerial supervisor orbiting above worked to calm the chaos.
Stranded for nearly an hour, northbound motorists north of Exit 16 were diverted to the southbound side of I-15 using the crossover lane, until that too became backlogged with vehicles waiting to enter the interstate. At that point, all northbound traffic remained stopped for at least 30 more minutes, until a single lane was reopened when suppression efforts made it safe to do so.
Northbound I-15 was reopened for travel shortly after 7 p.m., according to a Utah Department of Transportation traffic alert.
Southbound I-15 from mile marker 17-27 remained closed for several hours as fire crews continued to tackle the blaze. Traffic was backed up for more than 5 miles when both southbound lanes were finally reopened after 10 p.m., according to UDOT.
Amid evacuations, a swift moving fire, the coordination of multiple agencies, firefighters bearing blistering heat and pilots that continued to fly through thick black smoke executing numerous retardant drops, the damage was confined to one vehicle that was destroyed in the fire. One firefighter was transported to the hospital with smoke inhalation and no other injuries, even for the hundreds of motorists dodging flames as they headed south along I-15, were reported, nor were any structures damaged.
Authorities are asking the public to drive with caution in areas where the fire is still burning alongside I-15 Monday, as crews continue battling the blaze near the freeway.
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